Watch Out, Evita: Imelda Marcos, the Musical

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 10/20/2014 01:30:00 AM
Sometimes 2000 shoes just ain't enough.
David Byrne should be familiar to 80s music fans as the Talking Heads frontman of "Burning Down the House" fame. Together with Fatboy Slim, they have turned their 2010 double concept album Here Lies Love loosely based on the life story of Imelda Marcos into a London musical. (I've listened to the album and it's far from an audio biography of the Imeldific one's life story.) Never far away from the headlines, Mrs. Marcos recently returned to the limelight when the Philippine government seized artworks allegedly by Picasso, Gaugin and others. (She recently denied they were purchased using money looted from government coffers.)

Fortunately, the musical makes itself clear on being about Imelda Marcos by adding a number of biographical details which plot her rise from obscurity to global icon and the downfall which came. To be sure, some details do not quite ring true as you'd expect from two rich white guys envisioning what happens in a poor country, but they're close enough. I've been following the development of this musical for some time, including the casting call in Manila for additional actors. Even musicals, however, are subject to innovation: Melding Mrs. Marcos' love for disco dancing and Filipinos' penchant for Catholic religiosity was bound to have interesting consequences, and the musical seems to deliver on this front. Imagine, then, Philippine history as dancefloor extravaganza:
It takes Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos – for a while, the Asian Kennedys, then more akin to the Ceaucescus in their tyrannic corruption – from Imelda's 1950s rise from the humiliatingly poor side of a family of consequence through to the moment in 1986 when – after 14 years of Martial Law and a short entirely peaceful People Power Revolution – the couple were airlifted out of the country by US marines.  The rescue is realised here in a juddering frenzy of white light: Close Encounters crossed with a berserk parody of Pentecost. Imelda's epic partiality to shoes was only discovered subsequently (1060 is the attested number found) and it's typical of the strange, admirable rigour of the piece that its makers have forborne to make capital of the phenomenon.  
As for the political economy of it all, how does Here Lies Love compare to the benchmark for these things, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita? At this point there is no real standout number like "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," but the newer production may benefit from being more attuned to historical circumstance and observation of power dynamics in the rise and fall of Imelda. (Perhaps "Rose of Tacloban" gains resonance after the devastation wrought on Imelda's hometown during Typhoon Haiyan.)
The inescapable comparison is with Evita.  Here Lies Love is, to my mind, politically cannier and sharper about the queasy, telling  overlap between manipulative-diva worship on the musical and on the political stage.

And it moves to its devastating conclusion through the artfully deployed metaphor of disco – one of Imelda's passions in her spendthrift sojourns in the Big Apple.  Overhung by a vast glitterball (she had one in her New York townhouse), the Dorfman [Theatre] has been transformed into a churning, thumping miniature Studio 54.

The packed punters on the ground level are chivvied and manouevred by a live DJ and his helpers around adaptable acting areas: among them, a squatly cruciform central platform, handy for preening photo-ops
I've attended a fair number of musicals. In none of them have they asked you to, well, get up and dance. As a production in a capitalist economy, audiences are in constant need of novelty. Why not be part of a live disco act about Imelda Marcos replete with DJs in full Studio 54-style pomp? It's an intriguing concept that may herald more musicals eliciting more active audience participation.

Interesting stuff. When Mrs Marcos' days on earth come to and end, her tombstone will read, "Here Lies Love."